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12/14/2007

Charlotte, Lee counties at odds over Babcock, phosphate

Published By: Sun Herald

The Charlotte County Commission reluctantly accepted Lee County's invitation to discuss the proposed phosphate mining settlement Thursday.

All but one of the members of the Charlotte County Commission made it clear that not only do they expect nothing to come from a tri-county meeting with Sarasota County, but, quite frankly, they aren't looking forward to the proposed discussion.

That's not to say there's full-on bad blood -- at least yet -- between the neighboring counties. But if recent actions and comments are any indication, don't expect the counties' commissioners to be sending each other Christmas cards this year.

Charlotte County Commissioners Tricia Duffy and Dick Loftus were adamant Thursday that they felt no need for Lee County and Charlotte County to discuss the proposed settlement with Mosaic Fertilizer, which Charlotte County has already agreed to. For the agreement to take effect, Charlotte, Lee and Sarasota counties must all agree to it.

"I just don't think it's going to accomplish anything, I really don't, getting 15 commissioners in a room at the same time," Duffy said.

Chairman Tom D'Aprile and Commissioner Tom Moore supported the meeting, though reluctantly. Both said they, like Loftus and Duffy, do not see anyone's mind being changed by the tri-county meeting.

But D'Aprile and Moore also sided with Commissioner Adam Cummings in that they owe it to Lee County to have a formal discussion.

"I was raised to be respectful to other people," D'Aprile said. "That's how I feel."

After all, Lee County has contributed $2 million to Charlotte County's legal battle against Mosaic -- a suit the Charlotte County would drop if the settlement is accepted. Both counties have taken Mosaic to court over what they believe are adverse impacts to the Peace River as a result of phosphate mining.

"We say that we believe in regionalism," Cummings said. "And that includes when somebody's giving you a couple of million dollars and they ask for a meeting."

The near-denial came a different outright rejection Thursday. Lee County requested that Charlotte County include provisions regarding traffic concerns in its Babcock master development order, and the Charlotte County Commission rejected that request. The city of Babcock is a proposed development overlapping both counties.

Lee County Commissioner Bob Janes said after Thursday's meeting that the Lee County Commission's efforts for both the phosphate settlement and Babcock Ranch have been made in the interest of being a good neighbor.

"I think we have to remember the basic philosophical reasons behind our actions, and that is we need to build bridges and maintain bridges," Janes said. "We don't need to build Berlin Walls. That's us-against-them mentality."

Duffy questioned the goodwill of the Lee County Commission Thursday, stating she was frustrated when none of its members showed up at the settlement negotiations with Mosaic.

"I think we've extended the courtesy and respect that we all reserve," Duffy said, "but what about us? Where's the courtesy to us?"

Cummings took issue with Duffy's comment, stating the Lee County Commission opted instead to send staff members.

"We should not impose our method of negotiation on other communities," Cummings said. "Not every county operates the same way that we do."

Janes said the outcome of the phosphate negotiations surprised him and the Lee County Commission, and that's exactly why they would like to sit down and talk about it.

"Now all of a sudden Charlotte County wanted to settle and they wanted to settle on a term that would not allow any county to sue or any legal recourse over anything that the mining company may do over 20 years," Janes said. "Now that's something you can't do. I don't think that's something our county attorney would ever allow."

Sarasota County has yet to vote on the proposed tri-county meeting. With Charlotte County's reluctant approval Thursday, Janes said he'll take what he can get.

"I am glad they agreed," he said.

You can e-mail Neil Hughes at nhughes@sun-herald.com.

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